Mobile is Mordor — it’s time to sail West
I don’t think venture capital opportunities exist in mobile gaming anymore.
As a gamer and investor in gaming, I decided that the current market warrants an assessment of where “blue oceans” and emerging waves of opportunity lay for VCs interested in the space — and it’s no longer in traditional mobile game development.
When mobile user acquisition costs are as high as they are today, venture capitalists can only generate the returns they need from gaming companies with games in the top grossing App Store and Google Play charts. With 20/20 hindsight, that means having invested in companies such as Supercell or Kabam. As of this time last year, 1.2 million iOS apps and 1.3 million Android apps were in the marketplace. Paid marketing to push downloads, defined through “cost per install” (CPIs), have seen costs as high as $10 (or more) per user for certain audiences (sometimes 20 percent to 50 percent cheaper on Android).
Game developers hoping for organic virality are naïve, wishful thinkers. When you see a flood of licensed IP games in the market today, released in order to rise above the crowded noise, it becomes time for guys like us to board our ships and seek fortune in fresh waters. Like the Elves sailing west to the Undying Lands at the end of The Lord of the Rings, it’s time for gaming investors to leave the Apple and Google dominated lands of Mordor and look to new platforms and paths of profit.
As a gaming studio CEO, you have a finite reservoir of marketing dollars to fund customer acquisition, retention, post-churn analysis, and maybe customer reacquisition post-churn, too. You can pay the bots, water farms, and mobile ad networks for user downloads, or you could pay influencers, celebrities, talent agents, and brands in royalties, backend profit participation, or, perhaps most valuable of all, with equity in your business. It’s shifting audience, eyeballs, and attention from one glimmering light to another, that’s all. We’re seeing more of the latter in today’s mobile gaming marketplace with the appearance of more licensed IP games, however. Reskinning a game with celebrity or branded IP has become popular once again (as was the case with Facebook games in 2011). Glu Mobile’s Kim Kardashian title was a reskin of their existing game Stardom: Hollywood. Kabam’s Hobbit title was a reskin of their game Kingdoms of Camelot. The point is — once you need branded content and Hollywood reskins, it means the dancefloor is too crowded and it’s time to take the party elsewhere.
OK, to be fair, I should note that I’m entirely bullish on our existing mobile game investments as there’s a lot of upside for strong teams making core games on the platform. Most of these teams are already funded by VCs or traditional game publishers, however, so there’s not much to get excited about in terms of fresh gaming deals. I’m done making new bets on traditional mobile game studios. I think it’s too crowded, and the current bloom of licensed IP games out there marks a mature phase in the platform and a time for gaming VCs to look somewhere new. For me, that’s virtual reality and esports (and I continue to believe in the future of PC).
More to come on this in a future blogpost.
P.S. Shout out to Mark Ordesky, the executive producer of the LOTR trilogy, a dear friend and former boss, for inspiring the Tolkien analogy.’
Sunny Dhillon is a partner at Signia Ventures, an early stage VC fund in San Francisco. He was previously a corporate strategist at Warner Bros in LA, the first business development employee at a VC-backed spin-off of New Line Cinema, and a former entrepreneur, having launched one of the App Store's first social-local-mobile apps (named BarStool) in 2011. Follow him on Linkedin and on Twitter (@SigniaVC).